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Broadening Your Child's Abilities

Children’s play may affect their later behaviour and interests. You can’t force boys to behave like girls or vice versa, but taking your children’s natural inclinations into account, you can help them to practise skills they might not find on their own. You don’t know what the future holds, and we believe that you can’t go wrong by increasing the number of options available to them in adulthood.

One of the largest adult sex differences is that males are better at mentally rotating objects through space. (The ability affects the way we think about directions, as well as some practical skills like moving a sofa through a doorway). This pattern emerges early in life and is then modified by later experience. Many male infants at three of five months can recognise rotated objects, while few females of the same age can do so. Otherwise infants show no sex differences in their understanding of the behaviour of objects.

In primary school, the gap in mental rotation ability is small, but it continues to widen as children mature meaning that the average man performs better that 75 percent to 83 percent than women. Performance on mental rotation tests predicts performance on spatial reasoning tests.

It makes sense that different styles of play might improve different skills. Exploring physical objects and their interactions is an important component of boys play. As they build towers of blocks and knock them down, wrestle, kick balls, or ride bikes, boys are learning about the rules of the physical world. As girls play with dolls and dollhouses, they are practising nurturing and fine motor skills. Girls also talk to each other during play more than boys do, which may help them to become more fluent and have larger expressive vocabularies by the time they start school.

Boy-style play develops spatial skills in all brains. Boys raised in deprived conditions don’t show an advantage over girls in their spatial abilities.

How can parents help their children develop a broad range of abilities?

Encouraging girls to play video games involving navigation or other spatial tasks could improve their spatial reasoning. We also suggest involving girls in sport when they’re young, as self-consciousness may inhibit teenage girls from wanting to learn new physical skills. University athletes of both sexes have an advantage over non athletes in mental rotation tasks and other spatial skills.

Parents can help boys to develop better language skills by talking and reading to their sons starting in infancy. Boys may also benefit from extra help with phonological awareness in the pre-school and nursery years, which parents can provide by discussing which letters make which sounds as they read.

Your child doesn't have to conform to the conventional ideas of boy versus girl. Nurture the opposite skills in your child for well-rounded skills.

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